What Education News Outlets Should Learn From The Demise Of Al Jazeera America

I haven’t seen much hand-wringing in the education journalism world about the demise of Al Jazeera America that was announced last week.

Education filmmaker (and former Feinstein colleague) Kelly Amis noted the demise of the channel:

But that’s about it that I’ve seen.

On one hand, that makes sense. Al Jazeera America (AJAM) wasn’t exactly a household name, and wasn’t around for all that long. A big part of the reason it is shutting down is that not enough people were watching. And it wasn’t particularly focused on education.

But the shutdown of the well-funded attempt to break into cable news provides some useful lessons and ideas for education news, school advocates, and those who follow what’s going on in American schools.

Behind the scenes, I hope, the folks at Education Week Video (aka Learning Matters), The Seventy Four, Hechinger Report, Chalkbeat, and pretty much any other outlet that wants to succeed in education news is taking a hard look at what happened to AJAM and trying to imitate its successes and avoid its flaws and its fate.

First of all, let’s establish that it’s a loss for education journalism that AJAM won’t be around any longer.

The station produced a handful of really good segments about schools and came at education from a different angle than many other mainstream and trade outlets trying to cover schooling issues.

Many of them were field-reported video-based segments, the hardest, most expensive kind of journalism to do other than investigative work — but also potentially the most powerful.

For example, with the help of Soledad O’Brien, the Getting Schooled series looked at parents “stealing” a better education for their children:

Getting Schooled: The Battle for Better Education | Al Jazeera America http://ow.ly/Xy4rc

A little over a year ago, the channel took a hard look at Teach For America:

There were many others. The list of pieces it’s produced — in 2014 especially — is a pretty strong one (see bottom of this post for more).

Indeed, the station produced some of the coverage that some of us once thought MSNBC would create — or that The Seventy Four would try to emulate (if from a different point of view).

In its field-reported video pieces, at least, AJAM’s education segments didn’t strike me as the kind of predictable, bland, even-handed kind of thing that often comes from PBS or CNN. There was a pretty clear editorial point of view from the pieces that were assigned and how they were put together.

But as this new Brian Stetler piece in CNN highlights, AJAM needed to push the envelope even further than it did. The station ran into several problems including its focus on old-fashioned broadcast cable news (rather than streaming), its problematic foreign-sounding name, and — most relevant for education news outlets — its decision to provide neutral, middle-road coverage rather than eyeball-grabbing, innovative news. “We could have been VICE. But we blended in instead of standing out,” says one AJAM staffer in the Stetler piece.

Or, as CJR’s David Uberti put it (Why Al Jazeera America failed), AJAM’s “traditionally-styled productions failed to differentiate themselves from existing programs. Some of its shows felt like PBS NewsHour: level-headed and inoffensive, if sometimes boring.”

Of course, the short-term economics of a commercial venture are different from those of nonprofit journalism. And many of those who produce education journalism think that VICE or even Buzzfeed aren’t journalistically worthwhile.

But at some point, I think, the foundation-funded education journalism that we’ve all gotten so used to lately is going to have to try and bridge the gap between VICE (or say BuzzFeed) and PBS (or the least compelling parts of AJAM).

Funders — the new ones, especially — aren’t interested in giving money to established outlets to do more of what they’ve already been doing. As was clear from my October interview with the Gates Foundation’s Manami Kano, they want innovative story ideas, approaches, and storytelling structures.

“We’re not just going to subsidize your reporters to do news of the day that would already be covered,” said Kano. Instead, the foundation wanted national outlets like NPR to “go deep on a few key areas, develop a voice, and test some new things.”

Even on the commercial side, outlets like the Washington Post/NYT/WSJ/AP/LAT are under increasing pressure to find ways to engage readers and provide smart content in new, interesting ways that will stand out from what everyone else is already doing (ie, text-based straight news, maybe a couple of illustrations or photos, plus a torrent of predictable and simple-minded advocacy opeds). In an era of so much content, you have to make readers have to read what you’re producing. Compelling video (along with breaking stories and investigative pieces) are going to be key, I think.

Ironically enough, long-term success for education news outlets might mean imitating the best parts of a now-failed cable news experiment: Don’t be boring. Field-reported video.

AJAM ON EDUCATION

Here’s a partial list of education-related segments from AJAM over the past three years — let us know if there are other ones that you’d recommend adding to the list:

Snow Days a Challenge for Low-Income Parents http://ow.ly/Xy4AW

Ray Suarez interviewed NEA head Lily Eskelsen Garcia  ow.ly/B358X

Lesbian teacher may have been let go from Michigan parochial school because of in vitro fertilization ow.ly/Co9fM

In “Edge of Eighteen,” kids document their last semester of high school ow.ly/B37oO

Longest trial in SC history focuses on education ow.ly/AuSkK 

How Poor Latino High School Kids Beat MIT [In Robotics] bit.ly/1mLwomx

Truancy In Texas http://ow.ly/Xy47H

Cristo Rey: The school corporate America built http://ow.ly/Xy4hF

Match math tutoring and Chicago Crime Lab study 

Colorado Community Divided Over School Funding http://ow.ly/XyOUC

Alexander Russo

Alexander Russo is a freelance education writer who has created several long-running blogs such as the national news site This Week In Education, District 299 (about Chicago schools), and LA School Report. He can be reached on Twitter at @alexanderrusso, on Facebook, or directly at alexanderrusso@gmail.com.